13 ways to look like a stupid American in India

by neo

Taco Bell Drive Thru Sign

Neo was one of those lucky few who never had a “fresh off the boat” phase when he moved to the US. Any rumors about Neo walking through a Taco Bell drive-thru are completely false. (And even if he might have accidentally walked through a drive-thru, it was because he didn’t have a car, and didn’t realize that the restaurant was open.)

Needless to say, when he moved back to India in 2008, Neo was as smooth as when Mrs. Neo fell in love with him at the Indian Student Association’s Diwali party back in 1998 (she was such a good listener back then).


But, this post is for those who don’t always fit like a glove into every new situation. (Ignore Mrs. Neo if she suggests in the comments to this post that this is actually a list of 13 stupid things that Neo does repeatedly in India.)

1. Talking in Hindi – Its the subtle racism that happens “only in India”. You look at a person, and think “there’s no way this dude knows English”, so you ask him directions in your flawed Hindi – only to hear the reply in condescendingly flawless English (he then says something about you in Kannada to his colleague, and they both snicker). You are humiliated many times over (another reason Neo never asks for directions). But thankfully this only lasts a few weeks. Then you start talking to everyone in English – and everyone is happy.


2. Asking for the check instead of the bill, and then saying “oops hahaha” Every waiter in India knows about the check and the bill thing. So pick either “check” or “bill” and stick with it. Or just raise your hand and make that “writing” gesture. They get it. There’s not too many things you could be asking for after your “death by chocolate” dessert.

3. Laughing when someone says “I passed out” instead of “I graduated” – Yes, its funny. But what’s even funnier is you trying to use Indian English (or worse, the Indian head waggle) to try and fit in. It’s like a Chinese guy with a bad accent trying to imitate Barack Obama (“Confucius say war not determine who is right, war determine who is left”.)

BMW X5 I saw today

4. Asking “do you accept credit cards ?” – Almost any place you are likely to visit in India will accept credit cards. Asking whether someone accepts credit cards actually highlights your expat status and makes them want to mug you (not really – most expats are actually poorer than many of the local rich guys, who can afford to idle a gas-guzzling X5 for 15 minutes while they haggle with the traffic cop over a Rs. 100 ticket for running the red light).

I drank a lot of Himalayan water while I was there

5. Ordering bottled water at a cheap restaurant – Two things. First: Even bottled water is just “packaged drinking water” (i.e. filtered tap water), not mineral-infused H20 from fresh, white Himalayan ice that melted just minutes before being bottled. Second: The cheap restaurant that is likely to have bad water is almost certainly going to have fake bottled water. After Slumdog Millionaire, everyone knows how to seal those plastic bottles. If you are adventurous enough to go to a cheap restaurant, carry your own water!

6. Tipping too much – Almost no one tips 15-20% in India. 10% is almost always the maximum you should go. Going above 10% makes you seem excessively rich or stupid (usually both).

7. Taking an auto (only applicable in Bangalore) – Autos suck. Get your own car, get someone to drop you, call one of the three hundred cab companies in Bangalore, take the bus or even walk. Taking an auto and then complaining you had a bad experience makes you look stupid.

at the club

8. Saying you moved from Delhi (instead of the Bay Area) to avoid looking like a foreigner – The way you keep greeting everyone with a totally unnecessary and excessively gregarious “Hi” gives away your American origins instantly (not to mention your khaki shorts). People will wonder why you’re lying and make up conspiracy theories about your visa status in the US.

9. Looking for street parking – Stop looking for parking and drive straight up to wherever you are going. Chances are they have valet parking (on the same street where you were unsuccessfully looking for parking).

10. Making jokes about “Indian standard time” – Only Indians who are “fresh from the US” make jokes about Indian standard time, or Indian stretched time. Your plumber certainly won’t get the joke (and will come late anyway), and almost any other person will be offended. Threatening to ruin someone’s life if he’s late is a much more polite, effective (and common) strategy to make sure things get done on time in India.

11. Giving loans to your maids or drivers to earn loyalty – Neo’s neighbor (who also moved from the US recently) thinks he’s the next Muhammed Yunus. He’s given loans to more than 10 maids in the past one year – 10 out of 10 stopped showing up to work the next week. He still refuses to accept his losses and faithfully maintains his excel spreadsheet showing the low interest rate he offered them and the estimated payments that he’s going to receive (after all doesn’t Citibank do the same thing on a slightly larger scale?)

Inside Cafe Coffee Day (CCD)

12. Ordering a non-fat latte – A Cafe Coffee Day or Barista seems so comfortably Starbucksy after a bewildering day in India – so you saunter confidently into one and order a “low-fat extra-hot double latte.” The girl behind the counter gives you that “look”, hands you the menu, and takes the order of the guy who’s behind you. Yes, Neo still hasn’t found a single good coffee shop in Bangalore that is Starbucks-lingo compatible (or even one that regularly offers non-fat or low-fat milk!).

13. Not having a cell phone mobile – Not having a cell phone (known in Indian English as just “mobile”) in India is like not having a social security number in the US – the customer service people just aren’t paid enough to want to deal with you. So do yourself a favor and get yourself a mobile phone as soon as you land – or at least save your dignity and say someone stole your mobile phone.

Bangalore Auto Rickshaws

Epilogue: As Neo wrote this (sipping his full-fat Mocha at Barista’s), he observed an expat arguing with the auto rickshaw driver after being asked to pay Rs. 100 for a three minute journey.

The expat caved in when the auto driver said – “If you can spend Rs. 50 on a cup of coffee that actually costs Rs. 2, why can’t you give me a little extra?” (some expletives were removed for your protection from the preceding quote).

Neo also won the bet he made with Mrs. Neo – the poor expat proceeded to order a “non-fat latte”.

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